Whenever sexual assault is spoken about, conversations can often turn into a defense or incrimination of the victim. While there is plentiful information regarding the long-lasting cerebral effects of sexual assault on a victim, the recent sexual assault allegations reported in the news had me curious if there was a consistent neurological pattern among sexual predators.

As noted, several news stories have revealed many public figures as having been convicted of sexual assault. However, common features of exploitation stories include assaulters' loved ones' surprise at the allegations and long periods of time in which victims waited to come forward about their traumatic experiences.

While the latter is more generally understood – victims might have been threatened with something worse than the sexual assault – the former can be better understood through what many researchers call the “Dark Triad.”

According to a study published in January of 2016 in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, Dark Triad refers to the personality traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. This study, and many others cited within in, note that there are different Dark Triad “compositions” of a sexual predator. For instance, predators who are more narcissistic will sexually assault a victim when they think that victim is depriving the predator of a sexual encounter (which the predator thinks they deserve to have). However, higher psychopathy in predators results in the predator using aggression to take advantage of a person sexually.

Peter Bruggen and Raj Persaud, London psychiatrists and authors of the article “The Psychology of Superstar Sex Predators,” describe Machiavellians, in this context, as “(believing) that the best way to interact with others is to tell them what they want to hear.” In other words, manipulation is a default behavior for these individuals. Machiavellians, according to Bruggen and Raj Persaud, will also try to place the blame elsewhere if they have been caught.

Joshua Buckholtz, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard, published a paper in the journal Neuron this July that targeted brain structures associated with poor decision making in psychopaths. Using fMRI scans of prison inmates, Buckholtz determined that the reward system in an individual with high psychopathy will respond highly for immediate choices. More specifically, the ventral striatum showed the greater activity because the individual might “overrepresent the value of (an) immediate reward” as noted by Bruggen and Persaud.

Buckholtz continues to map connections from the ventral striatum to different brain regions and found that there was a very weak connection between the ventral striatum and a portion of the prefrontal cortex. Recall that the prefrontal cortex is highly active in higher order thinking, such as social and cultural norms, planning and consciously thinking about the consequences of your actions.

The ventral striatum is a crucial part of the reward system because it receives many glutamate and dopamine metabolites from various regions of the brain. It also is the key anatomical structure that provides input to the basal ganglia, which is located deep inside our ancestral brain. The basal ganglia, as noted by Encyclopaedia Britannica authors John N. J. Reynolds and Louise C. Parr-Brownlie, “specialize in … fine-tuning the activity of brain circuits that determine the best possible response in a given situation … (and) play an important role in planning action that is required to achieve a particular goal, in executing well-practiced habitual actions, and in learning new actions in novel situations.”

From this information, we can see why individuals like Harvey Weinstein have essentially perfected their elusive behaviors. We can also see that sexual predators like Weinstein have learned to profit from certain careers or industries based on their elusiveness of success, such as actors or actresses trying to make it big in Hollywood or aspiring young gymnasts training for Olympic gold medals.

News stories continue to appear about more and more powerful figures being prosecuted for sexual assault, and I suspect (and hope) that this trend will continue as the media and consumers alike hold these individuals accountable for their actions. We must also remember that while their brains offer an explanation of their behavior, that does not make their behavior acceptable.

Anu Kumar is a junior in neuroscience and can be reached at akumar8@vols.utk.edu.

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